As Yaakov makes his way back to the land of Canaan, several events – spanning the full range of emotions – transpire in rapid succession.
Reuvein felt that, as the firstborn, it was his place to defend the honor of his mother Leah. As Rashi explains, Reuvein felt his mother Leah would be offended at the notion of having Bilhah assume the role of “akeres ha’bayis” (the primary wife) at this point.
Thus, Reuvein took matters into his own hands and moved his father’s belongings. Once this incident was recorded, the Torah reverts to the fact that, after Binyamin’s birth, Yaakov’s 12 Shevatim (Tribes) were now complete and listed their names. Finally, Yaakov’s arrival at the home of his father is noted.
Shedding Light On The Actions Of Reuvein
Rashi offers a second explanation for the interjection of the listing of the 12 sons of Yaakov in the midst of this sequence. Quoting a Gemara (Shabbos 55b), Rashi points out that even immediately after the actions of Reuvein, he was listed with the other sons – with the respectful title of firstborn (Beraishis 35:23) – to lend significance to the fact that he remained a tzaddik (righteous person). In fact that Gemara notes that Reuvein did not sin at all.
Ramban takes this defense of Reuvein two steps further, by pointing out that the Torah specifically mentions that Yaakov immediately heard about the actions of his firstborn (VaYishma Yaakov, 35:22) to inform us that he did not punish him at that time. Additionally Ramban maintains that the Torah lists these two themes in one passuk -even though there is an unusual space in the middle of this passuk – to show that Yaakov accepted Reuvein even after this act.
Why The Punishment?
After this rousing defense of Reuvein, Yaakov’s actions in the twilight of his life, as recorded in Parshas Vayechi, require explanation. As he blessed his children Yaakov admonished Reuvein for his impulsive actions and took away his rights, as firstborn, to Kehunah (priesthood) and Malchus (royalty), and then gave them to Levi and Yehudah, respectively. (See Rashi, others, for the reasons that Yaakov delayed his response until close to his death.)
If Reuvein had not sinned, why, then, was he punished so severely? And if he was listed as the firstborn immediately after his misdeed, why did he lose those privileges later on?
The Responsibility Of Leadership
I would like to suggest that Yaakov was not “punishing” Reuvein by any means. Yaakov still considered Reuvein to be his firstborn and began the Birchos Yaakov by noting “Reuvain bechori ata – You are my firstborn” (Beraishis, 49:3).
Losing the leadership role, however, was inevitable once Reuvein had demonstrated that he acted impulsively – without proper reflection. If an individual responds impulsively to situations that arise he or she may be subjecting him or herself to the consequences of poor decisions.
However, as a leader, this type of impulsive actions can be nothing short of disastrous. A true leader must always be reflective and measured in his or her responses.
Leadership of any kind – in one’s class, school, peer group, or any other social structure – is an honor and a privilege. It is also a significant responsibility, one that is best exercised with restraint and reflection.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, and the founder and director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S.